MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali security forces are seizing and even burning Muslim women’s veils in Mogadishu to stop Islamist insurgents disguising themselves for attacks, authorities and witnesses said on Wednesday.
The Western-backed government’s crackdown on veils is a highly symbolic turnaround for the Somali capital. When it was under Islamist control in the second half of 2006, women were instructed to cover their heads.
“Every policeman and government soldier has orders to confiscate veils from veiled women,” senior police officer Ali Nur told Reuters in Mogadishu, saying various recent attacks had been carried out by people in disguise.
“Some of the remnants of the Islamic Courts have been caught wearing veils. During the war, these remnants, pretending to be women, killed so many government troops.”
Somalis are generally moderate Muslims and most women traditionally cover their heads but not faces. Officials say some suicide attacks have been carried out by men disguised under full face-veils.
Mogadishu residents said government troops and police had been forcibly removing veils and publicly destroying them.
“Yesterday, so many veils were burnt by the police,” said taxi driver Abdullahi Mohamed.
A Reuters witness saw some veiled women running away from police on Wednesday.
One girl, 17-year-old Iftin Hussein, said she had left her veil at home to avoid encounters with the police. “Yesterday, I was forced to run away to escape from being unveiled. This is wrong, but we cannot do anything, we are powerless,” she said.
A senior cleric, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, urged the government to be sensitive.
“If the government is unveiling women out of security concerns, then I think it is acceptable. However, this can raise public anger,” he told Reuters.
“The government has to undertake it very carefully. They should use women to frisk and unveil women, not men.”
Backed by Ethiopian troops, tanks and warplanes, Somali forces ousted the rival Islamist leaders in January.
Although the Islamists received some support for bringing relative security to Mogadishu, the welcome cooled when they banned Bollywood films and qat, a popular mild stimulant leaf.
The government has been fighting an insurgency that has killed at least 1,300 people since February. Just days ago, it declared victory, but is still wary of guerrilla-style attacks.
As part of a security drive in the gun-infested city, government and Ethiopian troops handed African peacekeepers weapons, including anti-tank mines and rocket-propelled grenades, they say were seized from an insurgent stronghold.
National police boss Abdi Hassan Awale said the weapons were unearthed at a Koranic school in northern Mogadishu.
“For children to be taught in a house with all these weapons buried underneath it, is against our religion,” he said.